Protecting Babar: Kenyan children learn about elephant conservation

KEN180428TO014SAMBURU, Kenya — Wearing traditional brightly colored beads and robes, a group of warriors recently sang and danced in this central Kenyan region as part of an event to encourage the protection of elephants and rhinos.

“There will be no more poaching in my area,” said James Ntopai, 25, a Samburu warrior and a project coordinator of Kenyan Kids on Safari, a conservation program for children. “The community now understands the importance of conserving elephants and other wildlife.”

Kenyan Kids on Safari provides Kenya's youth with the opportunity to join tourists, medical volunteers and others on safari to experience the local fauna. The idea is to discourage poaching fueled by the high prices of elephant ivory and rhino in the United States, Europe and China. Ivory is used for piano keys, billiard balls, jewelry and, in China, identification chops, or stamps used to sign official documents. Rhino horns are an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.

“When these kids get the opportunity to view wildlife they realize that they are not enemies with the elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo because this wildlife brings many tourists to their lands,” said Ntopai. “We train these kids to become conservationists because they are future leaders who will determine the fate of Kenyan wildlife reserves for the world.”

Killing elephants is illegal in Kenya. A government crackdown has reduced the number of elephant deaths to 60 last year from 96 in 2016. The number of rhino killings moved from 14 to nine in the same period, according to the Kenyan government.

But, the carnage continues. The elephant population in Kenya has dropped to 415,000 – or 110,000 fewer than a decade ago, officials said. According to the World Wildlife Federation, black rhino populations in Kenya and nearby countries have risen from 2,600 in 1997 to more than 5,000 today due to conservation efforts. But hundreds of thousands once roamed the region.

Kenyan KIDS on Safari also takes care of young elephants abandoned by their parents after they fall into watering holes dug by locals that the animals can't escape. Some members also search for and destroy elephant traps laid by poachers. Others report suspicious people in national parks to the authorities.

Officials said targeting kids and warriors in the fight against poaching and wildlife conservation could help end the slaughter of elephants and other wildlife.

“If we train kids on conservation we are going to win the war against poaching,” said Samburu National Reserve warden Gabriel Lepariyo. “When kids grow up they will be able to conserve the wildlife.”

Rather than gain money through poaching, Lepariyo works to convince local tribespeople that they could benefit from a booming sustainable tourism industry if they safeguard wildlife. “I want to encourage the community to keep the wildlife as their source of income in future,” he said.

Wildlife-based tourism generates nearly $10 million annually, or around 14 percent of Kenya’s gross domestic product, according to Kenya’s government report released last year. One in 10 Kenyans works in the wildlife tourism sector, the report added.

Now, said Todd Cromwell, the founder of Kenyan Kids on Safari, it was time for the African continent to concentrate on children if they were to save elephants and other wildlife. Many parents now teach their children to fear big animals as threats to their crops and competitors for grasslands where livestock graze.

“The savior to protecting these elephants is kids,” Cromwell said. “We are educating local kids in wildlife conservation to become ambassadors. If they are all well-trained then there will no poaching in future. They will not allow it to happen.”

Kenyan KIDS on Safari also offers education scholarships to Samburu and Maasai kids, provides toilets for local communities, drills boreholes for water and erects solar panels to bring electricity to remote villages.

“We want to empower them so that they can understand how the world looks like,” Cromwell said. “Our aim is to ensure that they protect the wildlife at all cost. They will have the lights to scare wildlife at night instead of attacking them. If their kids get an education, then they will understand the importance of conserving wildlife.”

Many kids who attended a recent Kenyan KIDS on Safari training program said they were going to start wildlife clubs in their schools to teach others what they had learned.

“I love elephant because he looks innocent,” said 13-year-old Dave Sambaya. “I will tell my friends to stop killing elephants and to love wildlife because it brings us tourists.”

Ntopai vowed to do the same in his village.

“I encourage the young kids and all of you to continue spreading the word about conserving the wildlife,” he said. “When we invest in kids there will be no poaching.”

Photo: Pastoral kids receive training on how to conserve wildlife in Samburu, northern Kenya.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (04/28/18)

Story/photo published date: 06/07/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.
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